As the CEO of CollegeSpring, a national nonprofit that provides SAT and ACT preparation for students who are historically underrepresented in higher education, I often get asked one or two of the following questions: Are these standardized tests fair, or do they only work for the rich, the white, and the privileged? Should these tests even exist, and what do I think about the movement to make them optional?
These are questions educators have been pondering for decades, and they’re issues my staff and I care about deeply. In practice, however, we devote most of our day-to-day efforts toward raising test scores for students. We do this work because we are acutely aware that, regardless of high-level debates about the tests’ merit, our students continue to be granted or denied admission to college based on their SAT and ACT scores. And despite conversations about whether the use of the tests is exclusionary, they are still one of the only measures in the college application process that is the same across all states, communities, and schools, unlike grades or extracurricular activities.
Several weeks ago, CollegeSpring hosted a convening, “Learning to Adapt: Education in the 21st-Century Classroom and Beyond,” that brought together education, nonprofit, and business leaders to discuss big questions about equity, college access, and the SAT and ACT.
As I moderated panels on the future of test preparation and how organizations can live out their values of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I was reminded of why we do what we do at CollegeSpring, and I was reinvigorated to make high-quality test prep a reality for all students. Here are my three takeaways.
Expanding choice for all students is critical to college and career success.
Raquel Lucente, Head of Computer Science Education at Facebook, shared that when she was growing up, a career in technology was a completely foreign idea to her and her family. As she talked about raising awareness of computing careers in communities that are underrepresented in the tech sector, Raquel emphasized the importance of ensuring all students have the educational exposure to technology that is necessary to pursue a computing career if they choose.
CollegeSpring’s program is based on a similar principle, introducing every student in a junior class to the SAT and ACT so they know college is an option for them—and what it takes to get there. Leilani Abulon, Vice President of Curriculum and Programs at Green Dot Public Schools, remarked that when her schools talk about preparing students for college, they follow the mantra “all means all.” She expressed discomfort with a system in which educators cherry-pick the students they think have enough potential to participate in a college preparatory program, mentioning that Green Dot partners with organizations like CollegeSpring because they offer all students a chance to choose college—not preemptively count themselves out because they don’t feel like “college material.”
Emphasizing choice is not an excuse to avoid systems change.
Recently, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether we should be encouraging all students to attend college or whether we should make students aware of other options, such as vocational training. (You can read my opinion here.) Having more options besides college can’t be bad, right?
But while students’ choices should play an important role in their education, we also have to think about what kinds of choices they are reasonably able to make within their social and economic environments. Jean-Claude Brizard, Senior Advisor and Deputy Director of U.S. Programs at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, argued that while more privileged students can take multiple routes to a good career, such as micro-credentialing or dropping out of college to start a business, students without other forms of social and cultural capital cannot afford to opt out of traditional academic credentials, such as a high SAT or ACT score or a four-year college degree. While we certainly shouldn’t force everyone to attend college, Jean-Claude warned us about the dangers of creating a two-tiered system in which students from low-income backgrounds are encouraged to be satisfied with careers that don’t require a college degree.
These panel discussions confirmed my conviction that it is more important than ever to ensure that a student’s choice to attend or not attend college is truly that—a real choice based on realistic self-reflection and adequate knowledge of the college admissions process rather than low expectations and a lack of financial resources.
Supportive relationships broaden students’ choices.
Our panel on the future of test preparation closed with a discussion about the necessity of educating the whole person. Tina McCoy Hearn, Director of the ACT Center for Equity in Learning, suggested that the test prep industry needs to start thinking about lifelong learning and social-emotional skills rather than single-mindedly focusing on the moment of college admissions. We agree that we can’t expect students to intuitively grasp the importance of performing well on the SAT or ACT. Instead, we need to to help them understand why college is important, how the test fits into college admissions, and how a high score can open the door to new career choices. We believe caring teachers are best positioned to do that.
This is why CollegeSpring is currently working to incorporate social-emotional learning into our program. While resources like a top-notch academic curriculum and access to technology are important, they don’t go very far if students don’t have relationships with caring adults who believe they can go to college and know how to motivate them to pursue a college degree. By creating new units on goal-setting, growth mindset, and motivation, we will support teachers as they help students develop skills they can use beyond the test to persist in college once they are admitted.
In our panel on diversity, equity, and inclusion, Sam Cobbs, President of Tipping Point Community, challenged us to have honest conversations about the interaction between personal agency and the larger systems in which people live and operate. If we assume that college and career success are purely the result of personal choice, we are obviously ignoring larger systemic discrimination that shuts down certain choices for particular people. But if we focus only on the problems of “the system,” we run the risk of discounting students’ personal agency in their educational journeys. At CollegeSpring, we certainly don’t think America has a perfect education system. But we do think that with the right resources and support, we can help all students make informed choices within the college admissions system as it exists today.